Cour des miracles.

I’m still making my way (in the leisurely fashion appropriate to a literary flâneur) through Lucy Sante’s The Other Paris (see this post), and I’ve gotten to a passage on the famous cours des miracles of old Paris which is so full of strange and wonderful words I have to post it here:

A cour des miracles was a cluster of houses that by some mix of tradition, common accord, and benign neglect was deemed off-limits to the law and, as lore has it, where a sort of permanent feast of misrule persisted. The name derives from the fact that miracles were a daily occurrence there—the blind could see, the hunchbacked stood straight, the clubfooted ran and danced, leprous skin became clear and unblemished—once their disguises had been put away for the night. The inhabitants were generally known as gueux or argotiers, the latter with reference to the fact that they spoke a secret language known only to them, at least as of the fifteenth century, when François Villon made use of it in his poems; its earliest vocabulary derives from the language of the Roma. The intricate social structure is illustrated by the abundance of names the gueux had for their highly specific professions: rifodés posed as families (they were usually unrelated) and begged in the streets, holding out a certificate that claimed their house had been destroyed by “fire from the sky”; hubains presented a document stating that Saint Hubert had cured them of rabies contracted by a dog bite; coquillards displayed seashells as proof that they had lately returned from a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain; sabouleux were fake epileptics; piètres were fake amputees; francs-mitoux were fake lepers; capons were gambling shills; and so on. They were ruled by an elected chief called the King of Thunes, or Grand-Coësre, who carried a cat-o’-nine-tails and whose banner was a dead dog impaled on a pitchfork. Their relationship with the church was hand in glove: fake lepers would claim to have been cured by a certain statue or relic; donations from the devout would pour into the abbey; the monks would share the proceeds with the gueux.

I continue to be grateful to Keith Ivey for his generous gift!


  1. The arrival at the Cour des Miracles (where the blind, diseased, and maimed beggars cast off their ailments) is, of course, one of the signature scenes of Notre Dame de Paris—so famous, apparently that it was even included in the Disney animated adaptation. Of the numerous film and television depictions (which, I must confess, rather run together in my mind), some seem to draw their depictions of the Cour des Miracles more or less directly from Dore’s famous engraving of the scene.

  2. Andrew Szmelter says


  3. Luc, Lucy — strange things happen in the Cour des Miracles.

  4. Lucy?!

    I was wondering if anyone would notice.

    Lucy Sante (formerly Luc Sante; born May 25, 1954) is a Belgium-born American writer, critic, and artist. She is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books. Her books include Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (1991). She was named Luc Sante at birth and lived as a male until announcing in September 2021 that she was transitioning to female. She wrote on her Instagram account: “Yes, this is me, and yes, I am transitioning…. You can call me Lucy …and my pronoun, thankyouverymuch, is she.”

    You can read her (well-written, needless to say) account of her transition here.

  5. marie-lucie says

    Of course I knew the phrase la Cour des Miracles, and I knew that if referred to a place likely to be full of beggars, but I did not know the reason for this name! Thank you Mr Hat and other well-read Hattics.

    Thank you also for posting Luc(y)’s account, which is indeed extremely well-written as well as revealing of the author’s unusual life and personality, and also those of other persons in similar circumstances.

    Lucy’s book the Other Paris receives at least one very deprecative review. Judging from the sample quoted by Mr Hat, as well as Lucy’s autobiographic article (I did not know her work or reputation), one wonders what type of reader could find so many flaws in the book.

  6. Tout le monde a des ennemis.

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    They were ruled by an elected chief called the King of Thunes

    In Kano, (in Robinson’s words) “the blind, lepers, beggars etc each have their king (sarki.)”

    It used to be worthwhile, if you were robbed in a Hausa city, to visit the King of Thieves to redeem your property if it had particular sentimental value. However, I suspect that in these degenerate days there is too much Thief Republicanism about for this to work any longer.

  8. It occurs to me that the trope of a “court” of beggars, thieves, or criminals is a pretty common one in fantasy, and even sometimes realist, media: Nadsokor, visited by Elric; the Thieves’ Guild in Lankhmar; the square where you get the quest to slay Humbaba in “Dragon Wars”; even the criminals’ tribunal in Fritz Lang’s film M. They are all different, but all clearly owe a debt to the fabled Cour des Miracles.

    I certainly has the name “Court of Miracles,” and the associated suggestions of dissoluteness, in mind when I wrote this, about a “court of dreams”:

    Some of the sphere’s yellow-green light leaked into the angled passage, sliming the walls like the phosphorescent mold that Bradjet knew from his people’s delvings, far beneath the North’s frozen volcanoes. Like a natural cave, the floor of the passage was uneven, and the knobbly walls were specked with the husks of gray-white subterranean insects—stuck in place as if the eldritch light had arrested them too, just like the dreamers in the hall beyond, leaving the bugs to wither away while their minuscule minds were enraptured in dreams that were far more interesting than reality. Damel whispered for Miero to go in first, and the rest of the group followed after. Lyka came second in line, stooping to avoid the occasional protruding corners that butted down from the already low ceiling. Damel followed after her, guided by the hand he had rested on her shoulder. He could see almost nothing of what lay immediately about him, reaching out, as he was, to feel ahead of the whole party. More than once, he misjudged where Lyka had needed to duck and struck his forehead against hard, wet stone. The stinging abrasion of the stony surface against his skin made him wince, and each impact further disturbed his concentration. By the time he reached the end of the passage, Lyka and Miero Orbod sliding one to either side as they reached the exit, so that Damel could emerge between them into the ghouls’ court of dreams, his divinations were so befuddled that that he was forced to drop them entirely.

    Before the trio, splayed at their feet, lay too many unseemly bodies. The closest sleeper was barely a span from the toe of Miero’s left boot, and she twitched uneasily as her dream self seemed to be clawing at a shadowy unseen adversary. The whole pack of pasty humans looked like the sad remains of a demented orgy, sprawled out across the uncomfortable stone flags, wherever they had fallen when their drugs and liquors had finally dragged them under. Some were piled up, two or three or four high, resting their heads on each other’s chests and loins, while their dreams were similarly entangled—sometimes amiably but more frequently in silent spectral conflict.

  9. Miero

    Since it sounds definitely Finnish, I’ve looked it up:


    Substantiivi (Noun)


    (ylätyyliä) kodin ulkopuolinen maailma; kulkurina tai hylättynä kodittomana (kerjäläisenä) maailmalla olo
    (literary style) the world outside one’s home; being a vagabond or abandoned homeless person (beggar) in the world

    Ääntäminen (Pronunciation)

    IPA: /ˈmie̯ro/
    tavutus (syllabification): mie‧ro

    Etymologia (Etymology)

    Venäjän tai itäslaavin variantin maailmaa tarkoittavasta sanasta; venäjän мир (“mir”).
    From a Russian or East Slavic variant of the word meaning world; Russian мир (“mir”).
    Liittyvät sanat
    Related words

    vagrant, beggar


    joutua mieron tielle
    go broke; пойти по миру (a collocation where the preposition is stressed)

  10. David Marjanović says

    Another case of ъ getting borrowed as /o/, I suppose.

  11. the King of Thunes

    I recently ran across the word thune in another context, where it had its more modern meaning ‘five-franc piece; (small amount of) money’ (« J’ai pas une thune » ‘I don’t have a dime’); here it seems to have its older meaning ‘alms.’ It’s an odd word (why the th-?) with no good etymology.

  12. By the way, the NYT Book Review has an excellent cover story on Sante’s new memoir I Heard Her Call My Name (archived); here’s a nice quote from the book:

    I learned that an empire waist on a long torso will make the wearer look pregnant, that shapeless things like sweatshirts only flatter 20-year-old bodies, that flouncy tops require considerable mammary buttressing, that puffy shoulders make me look like a linebacker, that suspiciously cheap clothes are best avoided for both moral and aesthetic reasons, that wanting to look like the model in the picture does not constitute a valid reason for buying the garment.

  13. David Marjanović says

    I’ve been wondering about John Thune…

    (one of the three Johns that are currently trying to become King of Senate Republicans as it happens)

  14. Trond Engen says

    John Thune

    A Norwegian surname. The -h- is ornamental. There’s no old þ here.

    There are farms named Tune all over the country, Tun n. “farmstead, courtyard (on a farm)” = Eng. town, Ger. Zaun etc. The -e goes back to an old feminine plural that was commonly attached to Iron Age farmnames of all genders, probably (says Bjorvand) still retaining its PIE collective meaning.

  15. J.W. Brewer says

    There was apparently a period when both the U.S. Congress and the Norwegian Storting simultaneously boasted a member named John Thune.

  16. David Marjanović says

    Ah, Hofer, like der Norbsi.

  17. Trond Engen says

    JWB: There was apparently a period when both the U.S. Congress and the Norwegian Storting simultaneously boasted a member named John Thune.

    “I should have noticed that”, I thought, but I see that the Norwegian Thune never actually served in the Storting. As a deputy member he would have stepped in if the member holding his party’s local seat had been appointed to government office, or died, or had been allowed to retire mid-term, but that didn’t happen, and he kept his position as mayor in his home parish.

    David M.: Ah, Hofer

    Maybe. If his name refers to a specific toponym Hof and not just any village.

  18. Trond Engen says

    (It occurred to me that I know the person he was a deputy for in his last two terms. Small country.)

  19. J.W. Brewer says

    Aha. The English wiki article about him perhaps imprudently presumes an Anglophone reader who actually knows what a “deputy representative” in the context of the Norwegian legislature is and isn’t. See (possibly with the assistance of google translate …)

  20. David Marjanović says

    Maybe. If his name refers to a specific toponym Hof and not just any village.

    Ah, that is unlikely – though there are a few places named Hof.

  21. Trond Engen says

    @JWB: Yeah, no, well.. that use of ‘deputy’ for vara- nagged me, but not so much that I didn’t accept it without checking. Now I think vararepresentant might be translated at ‘Alternate Member’, at least in American English.

  22. J.W. Brewer says

    @TE: I think “alternate” would have been less likely in context to mislead me — an L1 AmEng speaker. A “deputy” X is someone who generally wields actual authority, although perhaps subordinate to an unmodified X whereas an “alternate” X is someone who is waiting around to potentially exercise authority in the future if as and when the unmodified X is unable to do so.

  23. Trond Engen says

    Yes, that’s what nagged me about deputy, but I readily accepted it as a technical term. Waiting around is exactly what a vararepresentant does. I wish I could be bothered to change the en.wikipedia article.

  24. A Norwegian surname. The -h- is ornamental. There’s no old þ here.

    U.S. Sen. Thune’s name has a spelling pronunciation, with initial /θ/. I figured somebody must have changed the pronunciation after immigration — but actually, not only the pronunciation but the name itself was changed at Ellis Island. His grandfather’s name was originally Gjelsvik, he says here.

  25. Trond Engen says

    Gjelsvik is also a toponym, but more rare. There are two farms* by that name, both on the western coast north of Bergen. The surface meaning “Canyon Bay” is fitting for this, but not so much for this. Oluf Rygh agrees based on local pronunciation.

    * Gard or gård “farm, farmstead” is a matricular/cadastral unit. At some time in the distant past it was a single primeval settlement, but now it will usually consist of a number of family farms and houses.

  26. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    As the no.WP article notes, vararepresentanter used to be called suppleanter. They still are in Danish. Or stedfortrædere/vikarer if there is just one specific person they can replace.

    The vara- morpheme is opaque to me as a Danish speaker. Is it (or rather the var- part) cognate with ON verja, Da vår, Sw var, ‘cover’? The word is moribund in Danish, except for dyne/pudevår, and in this context we’d probably choose dæk- to calque it. (The -a- would be some old case ending that has been repurposed for compounding, like -e- and -s- in Danish).

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